Thursday, June 20, 2024
ArtClass hierarchy in Ethiopia

Class hierarchy in Ethiopia

The feudal mode of production and the archaic land tenure system obtaining in pre-1974 Ethiopia meant that peasants had to share the better part of their produce to absentee landlords. What is more, peasants had no incentive to raise productivity since doing so would burden them with more taxes and, worse, would attract powerful claimants to the land, or would lead to hardening of the terms of lease. In that highly stratified society of yore, the peasantry assumed the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Even though such a system has, for the good part, been done away with, Tibebeselassie Tigabu writes in this issue of The Reporter that traces of it could still be detected.

The popular culture of urban life made traditional drinks such as tej (honey mead) to be exclusively limited to holidays, weddings, or some other special events.

This sentiment might not be shared by the daily drinkers of tej in neighborhoods such as Shiro Meda and 5 Kilo. If one happens to drop by these tej houses (mead joints), one understands this is a communion space for men, both working and unemployed.

Their loud voices, slurred speeches, the clacking birle (decanter) and the obscurity of the space defy the concept of the origin of tej that historically symbolized social status.

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It is only the phrase, “Tej ye chewa metet new,” (Tej is a drink reserved only for the noble,) is kept in the mind of many without any contest. But what does this phrase mean?

Various writings actually attest to the veracity of the saying. In his book, “A Social History of Ethiopia”, Richard Pankhurst writes, “None except the nobility and the highest chiefs and warriors were privileged to drink tej,”

Ordinary people, including women, farmers, even merchants and other segments of the society, were not allowed to drink tej.

A former EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) member now a businessperson Woldesenbet Belete tells the exclusivity of tej. According to Woldesenbet, in the land tenure system, there are those who had rist – land ownership right that is inherited, inalienable, and inviolable.

The other major form of tenure was gult, an ownership right granted by the monarch or from provincial rulers who were empowered to make land grants. These gult (right to collect tribute) owners exacted labor services or demanded payment in kind from peasants. Such tributes in kind came in the form of fattened sheep, goats and the like, as well as grains and honey, the latter dubbed by Woldesenbet as gundo mar.

In one compelling story told by Woldesenbet, one peasant decided to consume the honey he produced and made tej with it. This news of a farmer daring to consume “honey” caused such a stir that it got reported to the provincial governor. The issue did not stop there and then; and it went all the way to the highest authority of the land – Emperor Yohannes IV.

After listening to the issue, Emperor Yohannes IV asked whom the honey belonged to. The governor replied that it belonged to the farmer. The then emperor ruled out the exclusivity of tej, and from that time on tej became a drink to any commoner who wants to consume it. This democratizing edict, however, did not bring to an end the hierarchical class system or oppression thereof.

According to Woldesenbet, the feudal aristocracy was given huge tracts of land and complete freedom to exploit the peasantry, particularly through the enormous private land-holding system in the southern parts of the country. In some areas, the landlords took as much as three-quarters of their tenants’ harvest in cash or kind, through a complex system of taxes and tribute. In addition to that, tenants were also saddled with obligations to provide free labor for the property owner’s benefit.

During that time, the society was highly stratified. John Markakis, a prominent political scientist who was in the country during part of Emperor Haileselassie’s reign reminisces: “The society was highly ranked and too hierarchical. Everyone knew how to behave with other people if one was, for example, a balabat or tilk sew (members of the nobility). There was an understanding on how to even wear the shemma (traditional shawl) when they talk to them. It was like going to the Middle Age, but it was working as a state.”

Woldesenbet said that one had to yield way when a balabat passes, bow to them, or wash their feet and be at their disposal. The feudal lords wielded both economic and political power, justified solely through their lineage of “blue blood”. “They did not consider the peasant, who belonged to a lower class, as a human being. Peasants were considered and treated as an inferior. Even their body did not belong to the peasants. It existed to maximize the property of the landlords,” Woldesenbet said.

According to Woldesenbet, there was an irreconcilable difference among classes, and further mentioned the existence of slavery in the northern parts of Ethiopia. “The slaves were treated more brutally than the peasants. There are even stories of slaves being buried alive with their deceased masters,” noted Woldesenbet.

Woldesenbet believes that revolution is a never-ending process in which the remnants of feudalism did not vanish with the dismantling of the system; but rather continues until now. The contradiction between the technocrats within the feudal ruling class and the students brought a “class struggle” in an articulated form. The student movement and later the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party used Marx’s definition of class.

Marx sought to define a class as embedded in productive relations rather than social status. Marx distinguishes one class from another based on two criteria, viz., ownership of the means of production and control of the labor of others.

He defines modern society as having three distinct classes. The first is the capitalist or bourgeoisie, who own the means of production and purchase the labor of others. The second class is workers or proletariat who do not own any means of production or the ability to purchase the labor of others. The revolution of 1974 in Ethiopia did not stop in articulating class relationships; it rather tried to dismantle the various class hierarchies.

When the Derg took power in 1974, with its Marxist-Leninist ideology backed by the student movement, its priority was to eradicate this “feudal” class of “landlords” by one of the most radical agricultural reforms ever undertaken: “land to the tiller.” Land thus became public property. Nevertheless, the state maintained a sort of crown right over its administration, beginning with granting use rights to peasants over a parcel of land roughly proportional to the size of their family.


When the incumbent regime came to power in 1991, it did not touch the 1974 agrarian reform. The thread running through history remained unbroken- land rights continued rather it became an instrument to define relations of power between the state and smallholders and their communities.

However, many criticize the two regimes’ “land policy” which reduced peasants into tenants or another form of “feudalism.” Especially with this regime, the leasing of vast land to foreign investors is highly criticized as a form of “feudalism”. This might show the relationship between the ruling class and the peasants in a bigger picture. After all these class struggles, some of the things seem to be unchanged. Still, most of the songs, films and literature highlight the rudimentary definition of the class relationship of poor versus rich. Traces of feudalism can still be detected in the daily lives of urban dwellers where some, like domestic servants, are treated not with kid gloves.

One of those places is among house cleaners, guards, construction workers and other segments of society that are engaged in manual labor.

Alem Gebre, 14, a babysitter from the Sheno area, joined a certain household two years ago to serve as a babysitter. In addition to babysitting, she also runs errands, washes dishes and helps in washing clothes of the family.

Tsige Moges, her employer, is a very religious woman, but does not show her piety when it comes to Alem. Alem is not allowed to sit on the couch or use utensils of the family; rather some utensils are especially reserved for her. “She is a maid and she has to know her place,” Tsige declared.

Alem actually knows her place in society; does not speak in a raised voice, or play with neighborhood children. It is not only Alem but many maids are also treated badly, punished physically and are not given daily breaks.

The Reporter approached Tsige to ask if it was ok for maids to have intimate relationship with other people or a hypothetical scenario with her son. Her response was preceded by a loud laughter: “I do not think it is ok in my house. I do not care if they do it in other places,” Tsige said, and went on: “I want my son to get married to a daughter of honorable parents.”

According to Marx,  property relations determine class and not income, or status and this seems to work in the current class structure. There are people who escaped poverty and made it to a higher income bracket. Nevertheless, within the current class relationship, people still expect their background to be a passport for membership in the “honorable group”.

The dismantling of the class system might not sound important; but people still use it to create artificial hierarchies among each other, for marriage, for honor, among other things. Many still bow to people who are considered “honorable”. Various institutions work in their favor; for instance, media outlets seem to be concerned about their lifestyle, business, and what not. Within the current social class system, being affluent is a determinant of joining the higher class and one can become a shaper of the economic and political situation of the country.

With the dismantling of the feudal system, during this regime, there is a creation of a new class of the rich, which Yeraswork Admassie, a sociologist at Addis Ababa University, called nouveau riche (newly rich). This group of people replaced familial inheritance.

These group of people might be from the lower social class and economic stratum but are allowed upward social mobility. For Yearswork, there is currently no definitive class structure as in the past.

“Yes there is class hierarchy; but the definition and the boundary is fluid,” Yeraswork added.

In one of the examples he gave, the outfit of a hostess and a housemaid can be the same, and both can speak in a similar style (including sprinkling some English words) so they might pass as belonging to the same class.

With the new millennial generation, the concept of class seems to be fluid and navigating through the hierarchy sounds easy. Especially with the expansion of education, and new business importers joining the market, there is an emergence of industrial and commercial identities.





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